Is Sleep for the Weak?

Students often have to choose two of the three options shown here. (Image Credit: Jorge Rivera)

As a college student, you can only have two of the following: good grades, social life, and sleep. I didn’t want to have to choose; I wanted all three, which lead me to the conclusion that I would inevitably have to decrease the amount of hours I could sleep, which inevitably led to the inability to remain alert during classes. Managing how to do this while remaining awake and alert during classes was problematic. So like any student, I turned to the internet and found a solution: polyphasic sleep cycles.

A polyphasic sleep cycle is any variation of a sleep that has, as the name suggests, more than two phases. Humans are mostly monophasic or biphasic, meaning they have one or two, respectively long periods of sleep. Wanting to get started,  I simply skimmed the research about the physiological and psychological effects of polyphasic sleep, not realizing how important it would later come to be.

I had the choice of two different cycles. The First, the Uberman cycle, the most intense cycle, is structured into six thirty minute cycles, totaling at three hours of sleep per day. I then found something that was more tailored to my schedule, the Everyman’s cycle, which consists of one long three hour period of sleep and three thirty minute naps totaling in four and a half hours of sleep. The idea behind polyphasic sleep is that after some time, about 7 days reportedly, you can make yourself go into rapid eye movement (REM) faster, and thus enabling you to get all of the benefits from sleep that you need immediately.4 It takes about 90 minutes to enter the first REM cycle in sleep on average, so theoretically, jumping straight into REM would eliminate all of the supposedly “useless” minutes of sleep.

I kept a personal journal for the ten days that I slept polyphasically to record how I felt after every sleep phase. The first week was very difficult: My body was not used to the deprivation and odd hours of sleep. During my time sleeping polyphasically I did have an extra four and half hours of waking time, which is what I wanted to achieve. I was able to have some downtime, sleep, and study.

But after 11 days I stopped this cycle, even though I felt great. I went back and found research by Dr. Claudio Stampi, director of the Chronobiology Research Institute in Massachusetts one evening. It was after this that I questioned my attempt to ‘do it all’ and discovered that the previous information about polyphasic sleep was misleading.

Sleep occurs in five phases. The first two stages, N-REM 1 and N-REM 2, place your brain and muscular system into a relaxed phase. Stages three and four comprise of slow wave sleep, where night terrors, sleep walking, and bedwetting occur. The final stage in the cycle, REM sleep, is when dreaming occurs and when your brain is almost as active as it is when it is awake. Waking after a full cycle of sleep makes you feel well rested, while getting caught in the middle of a cycle and waking up will make you feel drowsy.4

I feel that this generation sees that sleep is for the weak; a nice thing to have, but not totally necessary in order to live your everyday life. On the contrary, sleep is what allows you to be successful in school, and in the bigger picture, life if your objective is to learn and retain knowledge.3 Stages three and four, slow wave sleep, are where memory is consolidated, where short term memories are converted into long term memories.2 Therefore, if a student wants to learn and retain what they have learned, sleep is completely necessary. The chance of gaining insight is also more than twice as high if the individual is allowed to sleep, explained by Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Steven Lockley in Sleep: A Very Short Introduction .2  Some tasks are never remembered if sleep is restricted the night after learning. Along with decreased brain function and mental exhaustion, stress also rises with lack of sleep because of a lack of melatonin being produced during sleep.

Studies behind polyphasic sleep aren’t scientifically accurate; they are based on suppositions and very shallow knowledge of the facts behind healthy sleep. Polyphasic sleep suggests that after repetitive sleep deprivation, one will go “straight into REM sleep”, to gain all of the benefits of sleep more rapidly. This isn’t possible because sleep cycles cannot be shortened or elongated, they will simply not occur. The longer someone is sleep deprived, the more likely they are to fall asleep, and the sleep they fall into will be slow wave sleep, not REM. This slow wave sleep, if you’re taking a 30 minute nap, will only be for that amount of time and not the standard 90 minutes that the two cycles of slow wave sleep need to occur for. This would cause any memory consolidation that occurred to be insignificant.

Overall, polyphasic sleep cycles do not work because they disregard all of the necessary non-REM stages of sleep. If one wants time to have fun, do well in school, and sleep, no field can be cheated. Even though sleep deprivation may not feel as if it is affecting you immediately, in order for education and knowledge to be comprehended, eight hour, healthy sleep is necessary. Sleep is for all people in society: tired and awake, young and old, the artist and the athlete, the scholar and the business man. Sleep is for everyone.


  1. Lockley, Steven W., and Russell G. Foster. “Chapter 2.” In Sleep: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  2. Lockley, Steven W., and Russell G. Foster. “Chapter 3.” In Sleep: A Very Short Introduction, 36-52. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  3. Stampi, Claudio. Why We Nap: Evolution, Chronobiology, and Functions of Polyphasic and Ultrashort Sleep. Boston: Birkhäuser, 1992.
  4. Wozniak, Piotr. “Polyphasic Sleep: Facts and Myths.” Polyphasic Sleep: Facts and Myths. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

Jorge Rivera is a freshman who will be majoring in Engineering Mechanics with a focus in Biomechancis and a minor in Applied Mathematics at The Johns Hopkins University. He is interested in medicine, mechanics, prosthetics, public health, physics and philosophy. Jorge hopes to pursue research with Johns Hopkins in the future. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.